This has been a very … unique season for Phil Hughes. I really don’t know how else to describe it. The 26-year-old right-hander is coming off a disastrous and injury-plagued 2011 campaign, one that spurred him to (finally?) take his conditioning more seriously during the winter. Hughes looked like the best Yankees’ pitcher in Spring Training by no small margin, but he opened the season with a dud April before settling into a grove in May.
Since the calendar has flipped over to May, Phil has pitched to a 3.58 ERA (4.44 FIP) in 18 starts and 115.2 innings. The elephant in the room is his propensity to give up the long ball, though he’s managed to curtail that ever so slightly as the season has progressed. Still, I (and I’m sure many of you) get uncomfortable watching his starts — especially close games — just because I know a homerun could be coming at any moment. It’s a very uneasy feeling, like you’re watching a game while walking on eggshells or something.
Anyway, Hughes had one of his worst starts in quite some time last night, laboring particularly in the fourth and fifth innings. It was the first time he allowed more than three earned runs in a start since late-June and in 34 starts since coming off the DL last year, he’s allowed more than two earned runs just 12 times. That’s getting the job done, but I do want to focus on this year and not so much last year. Here is a month-by-month breakdown of Phil’s core statistics…
HR/CON is homers per plate appearances with contact, so HR/(TBF-BB-K-HBP). That’s a far more accurate way to measure a pitcher’s ability to limit dingers than something like regular old HR/9. The AL average this season is 4.0% HR/CON.
Other that the decision to essentially cut his changeup usage in half at the outset of June, Hughes hasn’t changed his pitch selection much this season. His walk rate has dropped considerably since April and as I mentioned this morning, the strikeout rate has been trending downward a bit as well outside of that June spike (interleague play!). Obviously the August numbers are a tiny two-start sample, so don’t spend too much time focusing on them. The progress in the homerun department is encouraging, but again we’re still talking about someone giving up dingers at ~150% of the league average rate. At least it’s not almost 230% like it was in April.
Other than the homers, my one big concern going forward is durability. I don’t mean injuries or anything like that, I’m talking about Hughes getting fatigued down the stretch. He threw just 91 total innings last year (Majors plus minors plus playoffs) and is already at 131.2 innings this year. This is only the third time in his career that Hughes has exceeded the 130-inning plateau, joining 2006 (146 IP) and 2010 (192 IP). Coming off the shoulder issue last year, I think it’s fair to be concerned about his ability to remain effective through the end of the regular season and into the postseason. For what it’s worth, his fastball velocity has held relatively steady so far this summer, though that isn’t exactly definitive proof of anything.
Assuming the Yankees get their collective heads out of their behinds at some point and get back to winning games consistently, it wouldn’t be a bad idea to give Hughes a little rest in September. Maybe skip a start or two just for a late-season breather. Of course that depends on Andy Pettitte coming back healthy and Ivan Nova not pitching like one of the least effective hurlers in the league. The Yankees showed a little faith in Hughes by installing him as the number three starter and they remained patient through April, and for the most part he has rewarded them with three strong months at midseason. Staying effective through the end of the season and potentially into the playoffs is the next challenge.